Yardsmart: Small accent trees pack a big punch

Maureen Gilmer

Small accent trees pack a big punch. They're attention-getters. That's why designers love to use them in the front yard. An accent tree in full seasonal glory will make pedestrians stop and drivers slow down to admire such an incredible display. So when you add accent trees for every season, your front yard will never be lacking in color.

Accent trees are smaller than shade trees. They may reach just 15 feet tall and nearly as wide at maturity. This size makes them ideal for fitting into more limited spaces up next to your home's facade. You can use just one accent, or flank an entry with a perfectly matched pair. Use a row to line the driveway or shelter a walkway. Try a naturalistic grove in your lawn or to provide filtered privacy for front windows. There's no end to these options, and the more diverse your tree selection, the more dramatic your seasonal changes.

The majority of accent trees strut their stuff in the spring. This includes all the flowering crabapples and cherries. The most outstanding is weeping Japanese cherry because it's top grafted to create an amazing effect while in bloom. For the all-native garden, both eastern and western redbud and the Rutgers disease-resistant dogwood offer intense color. You can also explore the delicate deciduous magnolias with their large pin or white blossoms.

During the summer, the options for bloom are more limited. The queen of the late season, particularly in the South, is crape myrtle with its array of beautiful red, pink, white and purple flowers. Choose the Fauriei hybrids if these trees are afflicted with mildew in your area.

In the fall, it's foliage color you're after. Nothing compares with Japanese maples and their close kin, which explode into fiery hues with autumn cold.

When you find a tree that offers interest in more than one of these seasons, then it's of double the value in your landscape.  The native redbuds and, in particular, the purple leaf "Forest Pansy" cultivar take on smoky sunset hues in late summer into fall. Dogwoods can also produce great color that makes them stand out in the evergreen forest.

When considering an accent tree, be sure to obtain the right form. You can choose a "standard" crape myrtle, which is a single trunk and well-defined canopy. These are prim and proper, with shapes that suit narrower nooks in the landscape or recessed portions of the facade. This is the best choice for a pair of matched specimens to flank a doorway, fountain or garden art. They also line driveways at precise spacing for a clean and tidy approach.

Most small accent trees are also available in a "multi-trunk" version. This form takes longer to mature because growers manage the development of three or more trunks that split off low to the ground. This makes a much wider canopy overall, with more of an umbrellalike shape.

Crape myrtle is renowned for its pastel patchy bark, and there's more of it to enjoy with a multiple-trunk specimen. The coral bark maple is an outstanding candidate for night lighting through the winter months when its branches are bare.

The best use of small accent trees is for curb appeal in the front yard. They won't become a surface root problem and their litter is minimal due to limited size. Most will bloom well early in life so there isn't a long wait to enjoy them. Best of all, you can buy a more mature specimen for an overnight makeover to sell your home, throw a party or just satiate your desire for a whole-new front yard come spring.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at Contact her at or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.